Our Proud Heritage. Susie Weems Wheeler: A Portrait of Professionalism in Action
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During much of the twentieth century, early childhood education publications and studies were dominated by men such as Arnold Gesell, B.F. Skinner, Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, Urie Bronfenbrenner, and others. The voices of women who worked directly with young children in child care and early childhood settings, especially African American women, were often ignored (Aldridge & Christensen 2013; Clifford 2014; Prochner 2019). While the field has made some progress in amplifying the voices and the stories of women in early education, most of these women—like Lucy Sprague Mitchell, Caroline Pratt, Patty Smith Hill, and Mamie Phipps Clark—were advocates and knowledge producers who influenced curriculum, theory, and practice at the national level (Antler 1987; Jepkemboi, Mohan, & Christensen 2020).
However, countless other women have worked to improve the lives of children, families, and colleagues in their own communities. In the history of the early childhood education field, the work and stories of so many women are no less important than those of Arnold Gesell or Patty Smith Hill, but most have been forgotten, except by those whose lives they changed. As early childhood educators, many of us may not research or write studies about young children that are published in scholarly journals or become famous like Jean Piaget or Patty Smith Hill, but we can all make a difference in our own programs, classrooms, communities, and beyond.
Just as we know that every child is valuable and worthy of the best possible education, early childhood educators in every type of setting are important because of the work they do to make the lives of young children better. They make a difference at multiple levels, and their stories exemplify professionalism in action. Professionalism is an essential guideline for developmentally appropriate practice. It is demonstrated when early childhood professionals identify with and participate as a member of the field, when they serve as informed advocates, and when they engage in ongoing, collaborative, reflective learning and professional growth, among other actions (NAEYC 2020a, 2020b).
One such early childhood educator who made a difference in her own community and beyond—exhibiting professionalism in action—was Dr. Susie Weems Wheeler. In this article, I describe the life and career of Dr. Wheeler, using information from interviews with people who knew her or who benefited directly from her work as an educator and administrator, including her son, Daniel Wheeler Jr., and Dr. Thomas Scott. I highlight her unyielding connections to her community throughout and following her professional career, as well as her contributions to early childhood education for children from marginalized populations. Finally, I provide a list of takeaways for educators to apply in their own settings. As Dr. Wheeler’s granddaughter and as an early childhood professional following in her footsteps, I lift up her story as an educator and leader who demonstrated the knowledge, skills, and dispositions that each of us can put into action too. As an African American educator who fought for educational opportunities for the children in her community and state, Dr. Wheeler’s name should be included as a pioneer in the field. We can all follow the example of Dr. Wheeler and, as a hymn from the early 1900s says, “brighten the corner where [we] are.”
Who Was Susie Weems Wheeler?
Susie Weems Wheeler was born in 1917 in the Pine Grove community of northwest Georgia, near Cartersville. Though her parents each possessed only an elementary school education, Dr. Wheeler was encouraged to pursue an education. Dr. Wheeler’s father was a tenant farmer, and her mother worked as a laundress. She described her family as lacking the advantages of others. Dr. Wheeler’s parents worked diligently to provide for their children. Her father passed away when Dr. Wheeler was 8 years old, leaving her mother to raise three children on her own. Dr. Wheeler’s mother worked several jobs to support her family and eventually remarried seven years later. She taught her children values and skills that were important to their family, including about self-care and independence as well as morality (Wheeler 2022).
Pursuing an education in Georgia in the 1900s was difficult for African American children and their families. There were few schools for African American children in the southern United States during the 1900s, and those that did exist have been described as underfunded facilities that were in terrible condition (Feiler 2021). During this time of segregation, school systems used state and local funding to develop White schools, and African Americans raised funds within their communities to build schools for their children.
For example, the Rosenwald Fund was a philanthropic endeavor established to help start African American schools (Hoffschwelle 2012; Feiler 2021). It was the original idea of Tuskegee Institute President Booker T. Washington and the president of Sears, Roebuck, and Company, Julius Rosenwald. The fund supported building schools for African American children primarily in the southern region of the US. Community members raised money and provided labor and supplies to build schools for their children, and the Rosenwald Fund matched what was raised by the community (Deutsch 2011; Feiler 2021). The Noble Hill Rosenwald School for African American children was built in the nearby town of Cassville, and young Dr. Wheeler was a member of the very first class in 1923 (Deutsch 2011; Wheeler 2022). Noble Hill School was a two-room school with two teachers. Dr. Wheeler described her primary school teacher as “kind and caring,” and this inspired her to become a teacher.
As early childhood educators, many of us may not research or write studies about young children that are published in scholarly journals or become famous, but we can all make a difference in our own programs, classrooms, communities, and beyond.
After high school graduation, Dr. Wheeler began her career as an early educator at Adairsville Elementary School. At that time, a college degree was not required to become a teacher. She did, however, obtain a teaching certificate, and studying for her teacher license served as encouragement to pursue a college education. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Fort Valley State College and eventually went on to earn her doctorate at Atlanta University, now known as Clark Atlanta University (founded in 1988 with the merger of Clark College and Atlanta University).
What Were Dr. Wheeler’s Contributions to Her Community?
Dr. Wheeler demonstrated professionalism as an early childhood educator through the numerous contributions she made to early childhood education in her community. She engaged in ongoing learning and professional development to become a supervisor and curriculum developer. She led and advocated for young children and families by participating in the development of the first community center and child care center for African American children and by helping to establish a library. Finally, she continued her leadership and advocacy work as the county curriculum director.
While teaching young children at Adairsville Elementary School, Dr. Wheeler was encouraged by Dr. Robert Cousins, who was in charge of Negro education at that time, to take leadership courses so that she could serve as a Jeanes Supervisor. Jeanes Supervisors were master teachers hired to oversee education in Rosenwald schools. The Jeanes Fund was founded by Anna T. Jeanes, a Quaker philanthropist, whose contribution was used to pay the teacher leaders employed in Rosenwald schools (Sessoms et al. 1975). As administrators, Jeanes Supervisors were involved in curriculum development, procuring funding for the schools’ sustainability, recordkeeping, and numerous other duties and responsibilities. As a Jeanes Supervisor, Dr. Wheeler had the opportunity to impact early education beyond her work as a classroom teacher.
As an advocate for early childhood education in the African American community, Dr. Wheeler helped establish the first community center and child care center for African American children. Between the years 1956 and 1958, Dr. Wheeler spent her summers traveling to the campuses of Atlanta University, Spelman College, Tuskegee Institute, and Florida A&M University to attend workshops. Her son, who was preschool aged at the time, traveled with Dr. Wheeler. She enrolled him in each university center’s child care program, which afforded him diverse learning experiences. It also spurred the realization that a quality child care center for African American children and families was needed in her own community, so Dr. Wheeler provided the leadership in establishing the Community Day Care Center. She was an avid fundraiser for the community and child care center and rallied throughout the community to build the center as well as the Faith Cabin Library. This was the first public library for African American children and adults in Bartow County. Although it was later moved, the Faith Cabin Library is still in existence, serving children and families today.
Dr. Wheeler continued her leadership roles after the public schools were integrated. She was hired as the first curriculum director of the Bartow County Schools and oversaw the integration of the district during the initial stages of desegregation (Walker 2005). She worked to ensure a smooth transition for young children from predominantly Black communities who were bussed to their new schools. Head Start programs were just beginning during this time, and Dr. Wheeler had opportunities to help children transition from Head Start and child care programs to the public school system. Her work in this area led her to become known as the Black superintendent of the public schools while she served as the first curriculum director for Bartow County Schools.
What Were Dr. Wheeler’s Contributions to Early Childhood in Georgia and Beyond?
In addition to her work for early childhood education in her community, Dr. Wheeler was active in the state of Georgia and beyond. She continued to exhibit professionalism through her work as president of the Georgia Association of Curriculum and Instructional Supervisors, her leadership in the development of the Noble Hill-Wheeler Memorial Center, and her work with Jimmy Carter’s Friendship Force following her retirement from the Bartow County Schools.
As president of the Georgia Association of Curriculum and Instructional Supervisors, and later as a board member for the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Dr. Wheeler served as an early leader in the development of appropriate early childhood curricula at the state and national levels. Dr. Wheeler shared valuable insights, particularly based on her work in developing and implementing an updated inclusive curriculum when her district transitioned from a dual to a unitary school system following desegregation.
While serving as a board member, Dr. Wheeler also set her sights on a new philanthropic endeavor—the restoration of Noble Hill, the elementary school she attended as a child. It was the very same setting where, as a student, she first became interested in becoming a teacher of young children. The school was in severe disrepair, and Dr. Wheeler believed it was up to the community to save it as an important historical structure for the community and for the state. Efforts to restore the school began when she worked with the first African American Supreme Court justice in the state of Georgia, Judge Robert Benham, and she worked relentlessly to raise funds for the project. Donations were given by businesses, and a grant was received from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. The Noble Hill-Wheeler Memorial Center was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987 and officially opened to the public in 1989.
Dr. Wheeler demonstrated professionalism as an early childhood educator through the numerous contributions she made to early childhood education in her community.
Dr. Wheeler was not only a leader in preserving this school but was also able to turn it into a museum with artifacts of what the first early childhood settings for African American children in the state looked like (Klugh 2005). It is furnished with photographs, videos, and historical information about schools for African American children from the early 1900s, and a replica of one of the original classrooms remains to this day, with a pot-bellied stove, wooden seats (with room for two children per seat), and the original chalkboard.
Dr. Wheeler was a leader who embraced cultural diversity and the fostering of relationships beyond Georgia and the US. She was a member of President Jimmy Carter’s Friendship Force following her retirement from the Bartow County School System in 1978. The Friendship Force was a nonprofit organization founded by Reverend Wayne Smith, and President Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter supported Dr. Smith’s vision for it. Its mission was to further world peace, making connections with people from other cultures and nurturing friendships. Members of the Friendship Force, known as domestic ambassadors, engaged in home visits with families in other countries.
These ideals and actions echo important areas of focus in early childhood education, including linking with home and community contexts, developing a sense of community for children, and highlighting cultural diversity in everyday life and learning—which may help to explain Dr. Wheeler’s interest in and contributions to this effort. She and her husband, Daniel Wheeler Sr., traveled and donated their time and efforts to build relationships with their host families as ambassadors with the Friendship Force. In this capacity, the Wheelers traveled to England, Germany, New Zealand, Brazil, and Korea. During their travels, they learned about international differences and similarities in education that could be used to support and value cultural diversity and promote an acceptance and understanding of diversity in early childhood classrooms. Indeed, Dr. Wheeler was a lifelong learner; serving as an ambassador for the Friendship Force provided learning opportunities for her following her retirement.
What Can We Learn from Dr. Wheeler?
There are many takeaways from the life and works of Dr. Wheeler. As early childhood educators, we can demonstrate professionalism in action in a variety of ways:
- Learn about those who support early childhood education, children, and families in our communities. There were several prominent figures who supported early childhood and early educators in Dr. Wheeler’s community, like Julius Rosenwald and Anna T. Jeanes. Without them, Dr. Wheeler may not have completed her education or achieved her goal of being a teacher leader.
- Use community and professional resources to advocate for early childhood education. Dr. Wheeler used resources available in her community and was active in professional organizations—locally, in her state, and beyond—to further early childhood education. Organizations like NAEYC provide numerous opportunities for professional development and ways to advocate for young children and their families. (Visit NAEYC.org/resources/pd and NAEYC.org/get-involved/advocate for more information.)
- Make connections and network to support young children in our communities. Dr. Wheeler, along with others, realized that to optimize the development of young children, her community needed a library and a community center as well as access to a high-quality early learning program. Through her efforts and the work of her partners, these were brought to fruition. Such accomplishments often rely on making connections and networking with others. Dr. Wheeler was able to reach her goals through networking with others in her community and state and through her involvement in professional organizations.
- Follow and expand our dreams to make a difference in the lives of young children and their communities. Although she was born into poverty, Dr. Wheeler’s dream of becoming an educator was inspired by her first teacher. She worked diligently to obtain an education and then use what she learned to help young children in the schools and district in which she worked. She drew on her own funds of knowledge and others’ expertise and supports to make a difference for her community during segregation. For example, even though African Americans were excluded from school system and political meetings, Dr. Wheeler was allowed to attend the meetings. She quietly observed, took notes, and then shared what she had learned with other educators in her community. Her steadfast professionalism helped her realize her dreams of helping her community during this period of time and beyond.
Dr. Wheeler drew on her own funds of knowledge and others’ expertise and supports to make a difference for her community during segregation.
Photographs: courtesy of the author
Copyright © 2023 by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. See Permissions and Reprints online at NAEYC.org/resources/permissions.
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Sessoms, J.B., E.A. Tackwood, R.E. Davis, M.D. Dempsey, E.W. Knight, M.A. Kincy, & S.W. Wheeler. 1975. Jeanes Supervision in Georgia Schools: A Guiding Light in Education, a History of the Program from 1908–1975. The Georgia Association of Jeanes Curriculum Directors Publication.
Walker, V.S. 2005. “Organized Resistance and Black Educators’ Quest for School Equality, 1878–1938.” Teachers College Record 107 (3): 355–388.
Wheeler, A.D. 2022. “Dr. Susie Weems Wheeler: A Narrative Case Study of a Philanthropic Educator During the Civil Rights Era.” PhD diss., The University of Alabama at Birmingham. ProQuest (2723476505).
Alisha Wheeler, PhD, is an assistant professor of early childhood and elementary education at the University of Montevallo in Montevallo, Alabama. Alisha is the granddaughter of Dr. Susie Weems Wheeler and has conducted extensive research on Rosenwald schools and African American women who were pioneers in the field of early childhood education. [email protected]